Tonle Sap Lake Massacre: Voice from the Grave







Ronnie Yimsut


The chilled-north wind from the Himalayas no longer a threat to my warmth nor my sanity. I was contended. I was happy even though I only have a few hours of rest and an emptied stomach. I have got my family again, at long last, to comfort my soul and spirit. I was happy, for the moment in time that I finally reunited with my long lost family once more. Nothing would matter now? even under Angkar terrible regime.

At the crack of dawn, our escorts started kicking people to get up and moving on again. They were the “slave driver,” the master of their domain and ours. I slowly got up and was pleased to know that everything was not a dream last night. At 15, I was too big and too old for my mother to hold on to me, but she did. She still clung to me and refused to let me go. I do not want to lose them again, but I had to join my group. Reluctantly I returned to my camp to help Sedum’s elderly father. Everyone moved closer to join Serey family. We were a clan again, now numbering 16 people of all ages and abilities.

After less than two days of hard traveling, we reached a place called “Ta Source Hill,” a place about a mile south of Keo Pour. It is a familiar, area for me as I have lived in Keo Pour after the fall of Cambodia. It is a place where I used to live in 1975-1976, before the big march to Tapang town. I was so surprised to see so many changes, physically speaking, happening to the area. It was almost indistinguishable. A few landmarks, the twin dikes were still there, but just about everything else has drastically changed. There were so many people being forced to work on this gigantic water reservoir. There must have been at least 15,000 people at this site alone. Our group was told to set up camp in any dry site we can find, but we must remain together as a group. Within an hour of our arrival in Ta Source Hill, Angkar Leu cadres soon came around to collect workers. All except Sa Oum, who was due to deliver a child at any moment, and her father were off to the work site right away. Serey got permission to find wood in preparation for Sedum’s baby delivery.

Everyone was so hungry and exhausted after this long journey. Angkar Leu did not allow us to rest before we were off to work again. I was very tired and so hungry. I am sure the rest of my family felt the same. My parents and siblings were close by, but they didn’t say much. All of them were working just like everyone else. More digging and hauling of dirt and gravel from a very deep and scary looking reservoir. I watched the soldiers beat people up with baton, not because they didn’t want to work, but because they didn’t have any more energy to give. It was bad, very bad. Angkar Leu had brought slavery to a high level.

It was at Ta Source Hill that I finally realized our fate. We were forced to work all day and almost all night for five agonizing days by a new batch of soldiers. Those who brought us over had long since departed. The new guards were cruel and had no mercy. Many died before my eyes from heat stroke, sickness, exhaustion and starvation. Most people died from beating they received from the soldiers. And many were quietly taken away in the cover of the night to almost a certain destination: death. All that time I wondered when our turn would come. I wished it would arrive sooner so that we didn’t have to suffer like those before us.

People from my group began to drop like flies in the muddy bottom of the canal. Very few even bother to take them to get a proper burial. The dead and near dead were scattered all over as far as my eyes could see. We were all too exhausted and too weak to move. Every now and then a group of people, our fellow laborers, came by to collect the dead bodies under watchful eyes of armed guards. Very few mourned for the dead. Even the relatives showed very little emotion because they knew that the dead would suffer no more. We were all like a bunch of living dead. I honestly thought that it would be much easier if they just came and took us away. When were they going to end our misery? I waited and waited. It never came.

A pointed object poked at me very hard and woke me up from the muddy bottom of the cannel where I fell asleep. I slowly opened my eyes to look at the teenage soldier who continued to jab me with his seemingly over-sized AK-47 rifle. He was no older than 12, just three years younger than I was, but much, much fatter.

“Move it, Mith! Now! Let’s go!” He was barking angrily for me to get up from the mud.”Go ahead and shoot me,” I said to myself.

I was ready to die. The situation was hopeless. I finally pushed my weak, skinny body up from the mud and wearily walked into a direction where my group, including my family, was being congregated. It was our time to go, at last.

I began to have mixed feelings about the sudden relocation plan. Normally, we would stay in one place for weeks or even months at a time before they shipped us out again. I had wished for them to take us away and now that the time had come, I was having second thought. Nonetheless, after five long and miserable days and nights without substantial food or rest, I was more than ready to go-where I was going was irrelevant. I just wanted to get out of this place even if it meant sudden death. By the look of others, including my family members, they were all ready to go as well.

After all that they had put us through, especially the last five days, nothing could be worse. Nothing would matter anymore.

They ordered us to file in a row of four. My little brothers hung on to me tightly. They were all hungry and tired. They did not cry, just exhausted. A small group of soldiers who were to escort us were made up of  all ages, some as young as 10. There were only five of them to escort what was left of my original group of family. By then there were only 79 of us altogether. During those five awful days at Ta Source Hill, eight had died, including six children and two elderly men. I wondered why there were so few of them if they were going to kill all 79 of us? I am always the curious one, even now.

The oldest soldier, a man name Phum, came over in front us and spoke loudly so that everyone could hear him.

“Angkar Leu is moving all of you to the Tonle Sap - the Great Lake -to catch fish. There will be plenty of food to eat,” he said simply and clearly.

Suddenly, people came to life and began talking among each other about the news. We were all very skeptical about this seemingly miraculous news. However, it made sense, as most of us in this group were at one time commercial fishermen on the Tonle Sap Lake. They told us just what we wanted to hear: the food, the chance to catch and eat fresh fish from the lake, the chance to get away from the misery of Ta Source Hill. It all sounded too good to be true. I was completely fooled by the news. Well, perhaps I had a little doubt, but so did the rest of the people in my group. We would have to wait and see what the future would hold for us.

Our escorts took us south through a familiar muddy road toward the lake, which was about six or seven miles away. The last time I walked on this very same road was just last year, when I was on another Mobile Brigade project. The longer we were on that road, the more relaxed we were. Perhaps they were telling us the truth? We seemed to be heading in the right direction. There were only five of them. They couldn’t possibly kill all 79 of us - Could they?

After about three miles of walking, the armed men asked us to stop and wait for the rest of the group to catch up. My family sat holding each other’s hands without speaking a word. Worry look was on everyone face. One of Sa Oum’s older sister handed me the last bit of cooked-dried rice. I threw a handful into my mouth and passed it on to my eager little brothers.

People were very weak and the three-mile hike took its toll. Another child died on the way. After some hesitation the soldiers allowed the mother to bury her child. It was another 20 or 30 minutes before they caught up.

Our escorts wanted us to move on quickly before the setting of the sun. They asked all the able men, both young and old, to come and gather in front of the group. The men were then told to bring their tools, especially any knives and axes they had with them. They said that the men needed to go ahead of the group to build a camp for the rest of us.

The men were soon lined up in a single file with their tools in hand. I watched Serey and my two older brothers, as they walked reluctantly to join the line. Dad was too old and too cripples to join in with the men and was left behind.

“This one is too skinny and too weak to be any use,” one of the escorts said about me to his comrades, laughing I may add.

Serey briefly said goodbye to his pregnant wife, Sa Oum. I was there close by. Sa Oum was quiet and her worried face gave away her concerns.

“Don’t you worry, I’ll take good care of her,” I assured Serey. The group disappeared shortly in the darken sky. That was the last time I ever saw my brothers and the rest of the men again. The sky was getting darker and a chillier. The notorious Tonle Sap Lake mosquitoes began to rule the night sky. After about 30 minutes or so, the two escorts that led the men away returned. They quickly conferred with their fellow comrades. One or two of the people from my group overheard something quite unbelievable. The shocking news quickly spread among the people within the group. I later learned that they said something like, “a few got way!” It only meant one thing: the men were all dead except a few who managed to escape.

It was about 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening before we were ordered to move on again. By this time the children who still had enough energy to cry were crying and screaming as loud as they could. It was mainly from hunger and exhaustion, but also from the attack by the swamping mosquitoes. Amidst the crying of the children I could hear the sobbing and weeping of the people who lost their loved ones. Sa Oum and my mom were amongst those who were quietly grieving. I still had my doubts about the whole situation, although the odds were stacked against us. If we didn’t die of starvation, exhaustion, or mosquito bites, there was a good chance that the hands of Angkar Leu’s soldiers might murder us.                                

The thought of me actually coming face to face with death now terrified me for the first time. I had thought of escaping right then, but could not do it after a lengthy consideration. I didn’t  have the heart to leave my family, specially my pregnant sister-in-law who was already a week overdue. Besides, where would I go from here? I would eventually be recaptured and killed later on just like my friend, Naive. If I were to die, I preferred to die among my loved ones.


There were plenty of opportunities for me to escape, but I just couldn’t do it. So I reluctantly trekked with the rest of the group, with my pregnant sister-in-law, Sa Oum over my right shoulder and a small bag of belongings on my left. Sedum’s elderly father was now bravely walking under his own power. He insists on dying with “dignity.” He knew. The wise old man who has been like a grand father to me in the past three years under Angkar knew that our time was very near.


Somehow it seemed ironic: we were knowingly walking toward our deaths just like cattle being herded towards a slaughterhouse. We all knew where we were heading; even the children seemed to know it as well. I still had a little doubt despite everything I had seen and heard thus far. Perhaps it was a faint hope - a hope that these Khmer Rouge soldiers were not the cold heart killers we thought they were. Perhaps.


A few miles before we were to reach the Great Lake, they ordered us to turn off to the west instead of continuing down south as planned. It was a very muddy, sticky road. My feet seemed to stick in the mud every single time I put them down to go forward. The progress was slow and cumbersome. A few people got stuck there just like in a quicksand bog and the soldiers would go back to them to kick and beat them up. I still don’t know if they ever made it. I was busy helping Sa Oum and myself move forward and didn’t really care anymore. All that time I was trying to calm myself down and keeping a clear mind.


Sa Oum was beyond help. Her quiet weeping had now become a full-blown scream. She was in a bad shape, physically and emotionally. Mom was nearby trying to ease her pain word encouraging words. I lost track of my dad and little brothers. I was not so sure where they were. It was getting dark, very dark now.


Sa Oum said that she had stomach cramps or was in labor; she wasn’t sure. It was to be her first child. She didn’t know much about childbirth or contractions, and neither did I. Mom kept telling her not to worry and that she had 10 kids or used to be 10. All that I could do was drag Sa Oum across the muddy flats so the soldiers won’t come and beat us to death right there and then. It was simply pathetic.


We were no more than 300 yards off the main road when they asked us to sit down on the edge of a small shallow canal that ran east to west. Both of our legs stretched forward; we had to shut up or they would to beat us up. In a matter of minutes a large group of at least 50 people suddenly emerged from a hidden place in the nearby forest. It was really dark by that time, but I could tell from their silhouettes that they were soldiers with AK-47 rifles, carbines, and large Clubbers in their hands.


“Be quiet! Shut up! Shut up now!  One of them began to shout loudly at us.


The rest surrounded the group with their rifles, aiming directly at us.


“Start digging this cannel with your bare hands now! “ They commanded and I heard some kicking and people screamed in pain.


I started to scoop the muddy cannel instinctively like others. People began to plea for their lives. The soldiers screamed for all of us to shut up again and again. More beatings ensued. Rifle’s butts met with skin and solid bone to a tune of crashing sound can be heard, followed by people screaming in agony.


“Please, Mith. Please. Do not harm us. Do not harm my family, I beg of you, “ a man named Rom next to my family begged for mercy.


“Angkar Leu does not want to harm any of you (they continued to use the term Mith or comrade). Angkar Leu only wished to ask a few questions that was all!” They yelled.


“Please, Mith. Spare us this time. Spare my family for we have helped Angkar during the war with medicine and information. Please spare us,” Rom continued to plead.


“When did you help Angkar? Where? Who is your contact?” The commander fired a salvo of questions at Rom who continue to plead for his life.


I was surprised for I did not know Rom was a Khmer Rouge sympathizer during the war. His pleading and revelation about his activities in support of the people who were about to murder him and his family angered me.


“Coward! You should die like a coward. You deserve to die by the same people you had helped,” I said quietly in my mind, looking at Rom.

            I will die with dignity and not a coward like Rom. It suit Rom right for helping create a monster, as the Khmer Rouge truly was, into power. Rom deserved to die for his part. Coward! He will die as one, a coward.


“This is just an interrogation,” the commander assured Rom. “Angkar Leu is suspecting that there are enemies among us. There are Vietnamese agents in this group,” he continued, taunting and toying at Rom and the rest.


I knew it was a bogus claim since we all had known each other for many years. It was all a tactic, a dirty trick to keep us calm, weak and under their control. But the tactic had been very effective because all the strong men who could have rise against them were the first ones to go. Those people left in my group were women and children, the sick and the weak. Angkar Leu had us right where they wanted. It was all a premeditated plan.


A young soldier eagerly walked towards me, yanking away my kroma, a Checkered-Khmer  traditional cotton towel, and shredding it into small strips. I was the first one to be tied up tightly with one of the thin strip by bad smelling the soldier. I was stunned and quite terrified. I began to resist a little. After a few blows to the head with his rifle butt, with another joined in with the fun, I screamed out loud with extreme pain in my voice. All could hear for miles away. I could only let them do as they pleased with me. They gagged my mouth shut only  after allowing me to scream out loud momentarily. They two then tied me up at both my elbows that stretched way to my back in a very uncomfortable position. If you could only see the fear and the pain in my eyes. My life flashed before my eyes. I knew then that it was the end for the rest and me for sure.


My skeleton head began to bleed from a cut. I was still semi-conscious - I could feel the pain and blood flowing, dripping down on my face. They were using me as example! It said clearly to others that this is what one would get if they got any kind of resistance. They quickly tied the rest of the group without any problems.


At this point in time, it was totally chaotic as people continued to plead for their lives. I was getting dizzier and disoriented as blood continued to drip across my face and into my right eye. It was the first time that I had tears in my eyes-neither from the blood nor the pain-but fact from the reality that was now setting in. I was completely numb with fear. I momentarily lost a sense of reality. I was confused. I kept telling myself that this isn’t real! It just a nightmare, the most terrible one.


I was beyond horrified when I heard the clobbering begins. Somehow, I knew then that this was it. Sa Oum’s elderly father who was next to me, his upper torso contracted several times, from the massive blows, before he fell on me. At that same instance, I noticed a small boy, Ahpat, whom I knew well got up and started to call for his mother. Suddenly, there was a warm splash on my face and body. I knew it was definitely not mud. It was the little boy’s blood, perhaps his brain tissues that got splattered from the impact of the executioners’ fatal blows. The others only let out short but terrifying sputtered sounds. Despite the yelling and screaming and cried for mercy, I could actually hear the breathing stop cold in its tracks.


Everything seemed to happen in a slow motion, like in the movies. It was so unreal. It happened in a matter of seconds, but I can still vividly remember every trifling detail. I closed my eyes; I didn’t dare look around, but the horrifying sounds continued to penetrate my ear canals, piercing my eardrums. I was still tied up and gagged, but my eyes and ears could not deny what I was witnessing and hearing at that moment. I was in hell!


The first horrific blow came when I was laying face down to the ground with a corpse partially covering my lower body. It whacked me just below my right shoulder blade. I heard a simple “pop” sound-followed by an excruciating pain. I tried, but no use. I was still wide awaked and suffering from unbearable pain.


The next massive blow hit me just above my neck on the right side of my head. It dented my skull nearly one half of an inch. I believe it was the one that knocked me out and put me to sleep that night. The rest of the clubbing, which included at least 15 blows, landed everywhere on my skinny little body. Fortunately, I did not feel them until much later. I do not remember anything after that, except that I slept very well that night, unconscious from the beating.


I woke up to the familiar sound of mosquitoes buzzing like bees over my body. Only this time there were tons and tons of them feasting on other peoples’ blood and mine. I was unable to move a muscle, not a one. Both my terrified eyes were opened, but they were blurry. I thought I had been blinded. I was completely disoriented. I could not remember a thing. I thought that I was sleeping at home, in my own bed. I wondered why there were so many mosquitoes? They didn’t bother me at that time because I could not feel a thing. Where am I? Why can’t I move? I was still tied up with the cloth rope.


After a few minutes I was able to see just a little, but everything else was still blurry. I saw a bare foot in front of my line-of-sight, but I didn’t know whose it belongs to. Suddenly, reality set in at full blast and I immediately broke into heavy sweat. I was shaking uncontrollably. The memories of the events that occurred earlier came rushing back and smacked me right in the head. I suddenly realized the sharp dull pains all over my skinny body and head. I was very cold. I had never been so cold in my entire life. Fear ran rampant in my mind. I didn’t think of anyone else, but about myself. I realized where I was and what had happened. “Am I already dead?  If I am, why do I still suffer like this?” I kept on asking myself that same questions over and over again, but always came to the same conclusion. I am still alive. I am alive! But why? I could not understand why I was still alive and suffering. I should have been dead. I wished then and there that I were dead like the rest of people, my family and friends, who were laying and scattering all around me.


The faint light of a new dawn broke through the darkened sky, revealing my shriveled, blood soaked body in the mud. It must have been about 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, January 1, 1978. “Not a Happy New Year today,” I thought. It was still dark and cold. My motor skills came back little by little until as time progresses. I was able to move with great difficulty. I pushed myself to sit up by supporting myself on the pile of dead bodies. I began to work to untie myself from the cloth rope. I broke the rope after a few painful tries. My eyesight was also fully back, but I wished then that I was blind after seeing the scattered bodies laying at every direction. Some of them were beyond recognition. Some were completely stripped naked. Bloodstains, which had already turned to a dark color, gave the area a new dimension. It definitely was not a sight for sore eyes.


I tried to look around for my relatives, but my system would not comply. My neck and body were stiff with excruciating pain. My head hurt-oh how it hurt so badly. I could only feel around my with my two hands and try to hang on so that I would not fall back down. Everywhere I touched was cold flesh. My hands were both trembling and I could not control them from shaking. I just sat there in my attempt to get oriented.


I cried my heart out when I recognized a few dead bodies next to me, one of which was Sa-Oum and her unborn child. I suddenly remembered the bare foot I saw when I first woke up. It was hers. Her swollen belly was openly exposed. Her unborn child was still inside, dead. Her elderly father and her two sisters were all piled up on top of each other and side-by-side as though they were embracing just before they lost their lives.


A little further away, laid the rest of my family members and neighbors. The body of my parents and siblings, what left, were strangely twisted and awkwardly contorted. A few bodies nearby were beyond recognition. I just  could not go on. My cries turned to a sobs; It was the only sound around besides the mosquitoes, which continued to torment my almost bloodless body. I began to fade and feel as though my life was slipping away. I passed out again on top of the dead bodies. I was totally out cold.


I woke up to the sound of people coming toward the killing field. I slowly pushed my self and sat up to listen closely. I began to panic: “They are back to finish me off, “I told myself. “They are going to bury me alive!” I reasoned. They might as well. I had absolutely nothing to live for. Technically, as far as the Khmer Rouge was concerned, I was already dead.


I wake all resigned to give up the hope for life as the voices got closer and louder. At that very moment, my survival instinct automatically took control. I pushed myself very hard, inching my way towards nearby bushes. I was no more than 20 feet away from where I was earlier and I now commanded a good view of the area. The people soon arrived at the site. I was right-the soldiers were back with a new batch of victims with them. Most of the people were men, but there were a few women amongst them. Their hands were all bounded together around the back at elbow, but with real rope this time instead of cloth one. “There’s no way they can get out of that rope,” I said to myself.


The soldiers, who were smiling and talking among themselves just like another day at the office, continued to whip and pushed the victims forward. It looked like they simply herding a herd of cattle? not human beings. Soon after, one of the older soldiers gave a simple command. In the broad morning light, I again witnessed the slaughter of human lives. In a matter of seconds the victims were all clobbered mercilessly to death, just like the rest of my family and friends whose bodies were still scattered on the muddy ground. My heart just stopped beating. My entire body shook convulsively and I wanted to throw up. My left hand squeezed tightly over my mouth so that I wouldn’t  accidentally cry out and give myself away. I felt as though I was going through the same ordeal all over again. My mind just couldn’t take it anymore. It went blank and I passed out again in the bush.


It wasn’t until the following night before I was really awake. A whole day had gone by just like I wasn’t there. I remember waking up several times during the day, but everything was kind of foggy. Soon after I woke up, more people were coming toward me again. I assumed they were more victims to be butchered. I did not wait to find out. I decided then that I wanted to live for one purpose only. It was to revenge for the dead of my family, friends, and neighbors. Vengeance was all the powerful motivation that I ever needed. I was no longer fearful? more like extreme angry feeling than anything else that kept me going.


I bid my goodbye to my love ones and I began to slip away from the area by crawling on all my elbows and knees. I couldn’t walk at all, even if I had wanted to. I was no longer bleeding, but I knew that I was in a bad shape. I was very weak, hungry and very thirsty. My lips cracked like mud in the hot sun. My entire body cracked from the layers of mud and blood that had been banked in the hot sun. I had to find water soon or I would die of thirst.


I worked my way west along the shallow-dried up canal and then turned north. By this time it was really dark and chilly again. My elbows and knees were all cut up and badly bruised, but I bit my lower lip and relentlessly kept one going.


I soon found my self in the middle of a forested area. Impenetrable brush. I went back and forth trying to find a way to get through the thick forest. I ended up back where I had started earlier, near the killing area again. After the fourth or fifth time of trying, I found myself in the middle of the forest, utterly lost. extremely frustrated, I howled like a wolf without any fear of Angkar’s executioners.


As I later learned, my being lost in the forest and all my back tracking trips was a good strategy. It is the one that most likely confused the Khmer Rouge’s experienced trackers who were searching the escaped survivors. I remembered it took them almost a week to locate, capture, and to kill my friend Laive. I intend  not to let that kind of thing being repeated. However, I was not the only survivor to escape the execution, evidently. During the night, I heard a movement deep in the forest, but I did not dare making a sound for fearing that I could be the subject of a manhunt. I intended to live, no matter what it takes. I needed to live, for the sake of my dead family and friends.


I knew that I was getting very weak and needed to find my way out of this tangled web of thick thorn brush soon if I was to remain alive. I spent the night right where I was, crying myself to sleep. That night I slept like a log, without a dream or nightmare.














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Ten Years of Independently Searching for the Truth: 1997-2007


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